In an ideal world, we’d swap out every diesel truck, emergency generator, and heater with something cleaner. Even better, we’d do it all by tomorrow at noon. If we could do that, and also build out the needed infrastructure for alternatives (charging stations, battery storage, etc.) by about 1 or 2 o’clock, we wouldn’t have to worry about diesel anymore. Refiners could quit making the stuff, and people could quit burning it for energy.
This wouldn’t solve every environmental problem we face, but it would be nice to scratch one off the list like we did back in the day with hair spray and the ozone layer (a problem that “went away” because it was largely solved).
But, the problem here isn’t just a lack of speed. A reasonable transition from fossil fuels to renewables+storage takes time. We still need to accomplish this as much as possible as quickly as we can, but it doesn’t have to happen overnight to happen at all. We can do it a little at a time, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. But, in recent times, we’ve started running into a snag that threatens to derail the energy transition entirely: investment in fossil fuels is going away too fast.
Before you guys get the pitchforks and torches out, hear me out. The fundamental driver of disappearing fossil fuel investment money is fear of stranded assets, a topic we’ve covered before. If we’re honest, CleanTechnica writers probably thought people wouldn’t listen when we told them that investing in fossil fuels is getting increasingly risky. We thought that maybe a few people would accept this reality at a time, and that if we were really lucky, we’d manage to get money into renewables before utter climate disaster occurred.
But, things shifted faster than predicted, at least when it comes to diesel refining. While there’s still plenty of refining going on, a combination of pandemic shock and a renewed interest in governments favoring renewables has oil companies shutting down their unprofitable and low profit refining operations. If the normal boom-bust cycle could be relied on for the future, they’d have kept those refineries open so they’d be ready to cash in later, but now all of that is in the air.
The wise refiners know that it’s time to start winding down, focusing on the most profitable opportunities, and diversifying. There’s plenty of money to be made in declining industries if you play your cards right.
Renewables Aren’t Replacing Diesel Fast Enough To Cover Needs
This is what we wanted in every way but one. Declining oil is combining with increasing renewables, and electric trucks that were supposed to be on the upswing now to take advantage of that. Low battery prices were supposed to be putting electric semi-trucks into mass production to replace the hordes of six-cylinder turbodiesels that roam the roads today.
But, refining is going out of style right as battery cell prices have been rising. Trucks like the Tesla Semi took years longer than expected just to make it to the first deliveries because building them was more expensive than predicted. Battery minerals just weren’t in the abundance they should have been in by now. So, instead of seeing electric trucks pop up all over the place, we’re instead seeing high diesel prices pop up everywhere.
After all, we still need food, water, medicine, and fake rubber dog poop. Most of the goods and services even EV owners buy have at least one diesel truck somewhere in the supply chain moving critical things around just in time.
Russia Compounds This Problem
If that wasn’t bad enough, now the US has to share diesel with our European brothers and sisters. The war in Ukraine has been bad for Putin’s Russia, but they’re still a major supplier of oil products to Europe. As winter sets in, Europeans are scrambling to come up with methane, diesel, and other fuels to keep people from freezing this winter, and the infrastructure just isn’t there to send in compressed methane. The already scarce diesel supplies are now facing a tsunami of demand.
A Short-Term Problem That Can Derail The Transition
Even if you don’t care about high prices at stores caused by crazy fuel prices, and the looming possibility of some things just not showing up, this problem could go from being a relatively short-term supply problem to something that derails the whole energy transition.
I’ve been talking to conservative friends and family about this issue, and it’s interesting to hear what they think causes all of this. Once again, in an ideal world, Fox News would tell Republicans that this is all caused by a short-term demand spike combined with some shrinking pains in the fossil fuel industry, but that’s obviously not happening. Instead, they’re being told that the idiot Biden is now in supergenius mode (or is being controlled by geniuses), and there’s a plot afoot to bring America to its knees and force us all to embrace communism.
Never mind that American-made electric trucks powered by American electricity is what they would have loved just a few years ago. It’s hurting the corporate sponsors, so it needs to be a bad thing.
If we don’t do something to smooth out the transition away from diesel to electric, every bump in the road will be an “I told you so!” moment for the people who make money selling fear to the political right, just as we’re seeing right now. If people get frightened enough by high prices, supply chain problems, and other snags that can be falsely blamed on electrification, we could see public support for the energy transition fall below sustainable levels, politically speaking.
Smoothing The Bumps Out With Clean Technologies
I don’t know what the answers are, but there are a broad variety of options to choose from that don’t involve going back to the ICE age. Temporary government investments to a smooth diesel drawdown could help. Increasing the efficiency of diesel trucks while we get the battery supplies and infrastructure together for electric trucks could also put a dent in it. There are also other ways to move goods, like rail and the Marine Highway System, that use less diesel.
None of these solutions alone could be a silver bullet, but we need to get the stabilizing influence we can from each of them to help us cross the cleantech threshold.
Featured image by Tesla.
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